Epaphras had come to faith through Paul in Ephesus, and went back to his home town of Colossae to found the church there (Colossian 1:7, 4:12-13). Now he had made the long journey to Rome to seek Paul's advice about the teachers who had come in with another kind of religion and undermined his leadership. Paul is very upset by the news that Epaphras brought (1:8, 4:12).
To understand the nature of this other religion, we should begin with the legalism that Paul opposed. He had written to the Galatians. "There are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel" (Galatians 1:7). The good news of the Messiah was the power of the Spirit, not just to forgive us, but to perfect us in love (Galatians 5:5-6, 22-26). The NRSV translation "Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16) uses an imperative to recommend the very legalism that Paul was opposing. Paul's point is that by living by the Spirit "you will not gratify the desires of the flesh" (as explained in Romans 8:5-8).
The heart of grace is being perfected by the Spirit : "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works" (Ephesians 2:8). As opposed to transformation by faith in the power of the Spirit, every form of legalism demands that we make ourselves right by human rules and self effort. And any honest person soon discovers that is impossible.
The Galatians had begun well when they enjoyed the power of the Holy Spirit to change them and work miracles among them (Galatians 3:3-5). They had enjoyed "the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:21, see 8:2), but legalism had taken them back into spiritual bondage (Galatians 5:1).
The particular kind of legalism that had disturbed the Galatians was a Jewish alternative to the good news of faith in the power of the Spirit to change people of any race. The Pharisaic objective was to "compel the Gentiles to live like Jews" (Galatians 2:14). And the first requirement was that the Gentile male converts must be circumcised (Galatians 5:2, 11). If that religion had taken over, there would be no Christian church and anything that remained would have been swallowed back into Judaism.
Now having seen what had previously gone wrong among the Galatians, it becomes clear that the other religion that had disturbed the Colossians had a similar purpose in mind. Paul did not found the church in Colossae (1:4, 7, 2:1) so he is not as blunt as he was with his own Galatian friends. But the indirect allusions are clear enough to outline the religious model that had replaced the simplicity of the Gospel (Colossians 2:8-23).
2:8 - The good news of the Messiah is simple enough for a child to understand, but legalism as a means of salvation always needs a complicated explanation. "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit." The legalists had brought the Colossians back into bondage (as in Romans 7:14, 8:1-2, Galatians 5:1) by philosophical explanation "not according to the Messiah." But a little child does not need to understand all the qualifications and lifework of his parents to be able to trust in their love.
"Philosophy and vain deceit" is one way of giving a foundation for a legalistic religion (as in some forms of New Age teaching). What is emphasized is gnosis (as in later Gnosticism) which involves understanding a system of explanation about our human origins and destiny. The other foundation for legalism is a system of tradition (as in Confucianism, Hindu Brahminism and tradition-based Christianity). The legalists in Colossae gave an explanation for their religion based on their Jewish form of "human tradition" (2:8). This was exactly what Jesus had to confront, and it was his rejection of Pharisee tradition that resulted in him being crucified (Matthew 15:1-9, Mark 7:3-9).
Both philosophy-based legalism and tradition-based legalism are human inventions "according to the elemental spirits of the universe" (as in Galatians 4:3,9). Here "elemental spirits" is an educational term meaning the basic elements of learning in that culture.
2:9-10 - Similarly in our day all sorts of plausible explanations of what life is about, and arguments from Christian tradition, will inevitably result in making the life and work of the Messiah unnecessary. In the next chapter we will see Paul's description of how in Jesus the Son of God "the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily" (2:9). We do not need any further explanation or rules from tradition to add to all that we have in him.
2:11 - As among the Galatians, the legalists in Colossae insisted on circumcision as a first commitment to obeying Jewish traditions (Galatians 5:2,11). Paul tells them that they are already "Circumcised with a spiritual circumcision." That was already suggested in the Old Testament. "Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer" (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4).
And Paul had explained in a previous Epistle : "A person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart - it is spiritual and not literal" (Romans 2:28-29). There is no harm in Jews and Arabs using circumcision as a sign of their common Abrahamic faith (Genesis 17:9-14, 23-27, see Romans 4:9-12). "Is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify (put right) the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith" (Romans 3:29-30).
The "spiritual circumcision" of the Christians in Colossae occurred when they began "putting off the body of the flesh" the moment they moved from living "according to the flesh" to living "according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:4-7). This was the spiritual circumcision that the Messiah offered to his disciples.
2:12 - Baptism is a burial of one's previous attempts at making oneself right by self-righteousness and self-effort. And it should result in "faith in the power of God" to do the changing (See Go Make Learners chapters 3-6). This is why the Colossians had their old life in the flesh "buried with him in baptism" and "were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead" (as in Romans 1:16, 8:11, 15:13, as explained in the Commentary on Romans).
Baptism was "the water of rebirth" with a view to "renewal by the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). It was what Nicodemus, the leading rabbi of Jerusalem, had needed. "No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit" (John 3:5). And the teaching and renewal by the Spirit takes place in the church as the body of the Messiah. "In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:13). All this was undermined by the legalists which taught that one could be changed by gnosis (knowledge of their philosophy).
2:13 - Spiritual deadness, both for Jews and Christians, and people of all religions, is walking by human wisdom and reliance on human effort. It was what first happened in the Garden of Eden. "Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Genesis 2:17). It is the condition of all people till they are made alive by the Spirit. "You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient" (Ephesians 2:1-3). As soon as our life in the Spirit begins, we know we are forgiven, we begin being moved by the Spirit, and instead of a sense of slavery to God, we know we are accepted and loved as children of God and we are joint heirs with the Messiah (Romans 8:13-17).
2:14 - We also know that we are no longer under "the record that stood against us with its legal demands," which is exactly what legalism is. We are freed from rules based on human wisdom or church or religious tradition (2:8). As Paul wrote to the Church in Rome, "You have died to the law through the body of Christ . . . We are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written law but in the new life of the Spirit:" (Romans 7:4-6). In the next chapter we will consider the cosmic change that took place (Colossian 1:20) when Jesus ended the old order "nailing it to the cross."
2:15 - Satanic power is always based on holding people under legalism and the paralyzing attempt to save ourselves by self-effort. But when the legalists got him crucified, Jesus defeated death and the fear of death, and the power of Satan was broken. All "the rulers and authorities" that Satan uses to terrify us are "disarmed" for ever. The only requirement is that we continue to look to the Spirit to inspire and work in us, instead of going back to "the weak and beggarly elemental spirits" (Galatians 4:9, as in Colossians 2:8).
2:16, 17 - The particularly Jewish form of legalism that came in to take the Colossian church back into bondage included rules about "food and drink" and the observing of traditional "festivals." At most the observing of festivals could point by way of imagery and symbols to the work of the Messiah. As we will see in the chapter on Church ethics, the Jewish rules about diet may "have an appearance of wisdom" but "they are of no value in checking self-indulgence" (2:23).
2:18-19 - The church is an organic body of which the Messiah is the head. And the whole body is animated and empowered by the Spirit. By looking in another direction to save themselves by gnosis (philosophical knowledge), the Colossians were being disqualified from the very life of God. "Self-abasement" meant that were reduced to being ordinary mortals struggling to find their own way.
The Greek word angelos can mean any kind of messenger or intermediary. We can rejoice in the angels that God sends to help and serve us. But giving worship (worthship) to other intermediaries, human teachers, philosophers, gurus, etc. means that we have lost spiritual contact with the head of the church. The Holy Spirit on occasion gives prophets a vision, and then gives the proper interpretation (as in Zechariah chapter 3 to 6, Acts 10:10-16, 34-35, 16:9-10). But if we pay attention to merely human ideas and visions, we fall prey to dangerous error and disqualify ourselves from all that life in the Holy Spirit has for us.
Chapter 4 .....